Can Watches Look Sharp and Be Smart?

New York Times, October 22, 2014

LOS ANGELES — For most of the last century, the wristwatch served one unambiguous purpose: to tell its wearer the time. The era of mobile phones and the rise of their smart offspring threatened that status quo — not to mention the watch industry itself. Many watchmakers reinvented themselves as purveyors of fashion, luxury and, in the most rarefied realms, art.

For the best among them, it was a lucrative strategy. From 2000 to 2013, Swiss watch exports more than quadrupled in value, to $24 billion, from about $6.1 billion.

Now, with the introduction of the Apple Watch and the legions of smartwatch competitors, wristwatches are a topic of fresh debate: Is the wristwatch a functional piece of jewelry that conveys its wearer’s taste and status, and — with collectible models from respected makers such as Patek Philippe — an investment vehicle? Or is it a tool that tracks personal fitness information, plays third-party apps and pays the dinner bill?

Watch lovers are divided — and irritated. “The hostility many have about the Apple Watch comes from the fact that sooner or later, they’re going to be required to make a choice,” said Ariel Adams, author of “The World’s Most Expensive Watches” and founder of aBlogtoWatch. “At what point will I have to take off the watch I love for the watch I need?”

Perhaps they won’t have to choose. Consider Apple’s play for consumers interested in more than functionality. During the recent Paris Fashion Week, at a one-day exhibition at the trendsetting retailer Colette, the Apple designers Jony Ive and Marc Newson mingled with style arbiters like Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. That the Apple Watch graces the cover of Vogue China’s November issue is a sign that the wearable device isn’t likely to suffer the same fate as Google Glass, which has been called creepy and unfashionable.

Most compelling of all: Apple is making its watch — available in three collections, each in two sizes, 38 mm and 42 mm — in an upscale 18k gold model known as the Apple Watch Edition that is expected to retail for thousands of dollars. That’s a metal, and a price point, that popular smartwatches such as Pebble and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear haven’t dared to tackle.

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“Here’s where we get into uncharted waters,” said Horace Dediu, a mobile industry analyst at Asymco. “Had they stopped at an aluminum or plastic device on your wrist for $200, that would have been understood. But they’re entering into a new spending budget. They’re looking at the way people spend money.”

Other makers also see an opportunity for wristwatches that are both smart in the connected sense of the word and smart looking. Early next month, for example, the online retailer Gilt.com will release the Michael Bastian Smartwatch, the result of a collaboration with the men’s wear designer and Hewlett-Packard. Described as “a gentleman’s watch,” the 44 mm stainless steel model takes its aesthetic cues from the dashboards and trim details of luxury cars. Compatible with Android and iOS devices, it allows wearers to check stock market and sports updates, read text messages and receive calendar reminders.

“I did my homework on smartwatches, and everything I was seeing looked like a hunk of plastic,” Mr. Bastian said. “We were adamant that it needed to have a round dial, for a person who’s never worn a smartwatch to see something familiar: a circular dial with two hands moving around it.”

With members of Gen Y spending $2.5 trillion globally, the time is ripe to reconsider the definition of luxury, said Jamie Gutfreund, chief marketing officer for Noise/The Intelligence Group, a youth-focused marketing agency based in New York. “Luxury is about newness, novelty and being first to market,” she said. “It’s more about access.”

Piers Fawkes, editor in chief of the New York-based trend-spotting website PSFK, said, “People will make a choice: What do I want to be seen as? Somebody with taste and also money? Or as someone who’s smart and connected with the world? I feel that for the younger generation, the Apple Watch is far more interesting and a greater status symbol than an old-world watch today.”

Mr. Fawkes said he intended to buy an Apple Watch “as soon as it comes out,” despite mixed feelings about parting with his Swiss-made analog timepiece.

“I would probably put my Breitling away,” he said. “But there’s sentimental value behind it. Maybe it’s something I wear on special occasions?”

The news this month that the rapper Will.i.am had joined with 7Digital, a London-based digital music and radio services company, to market a new watchlike wearable called Puls might be a sign that the smartwatch sector — already teeming with upstart brands — was poised for explosive growth.

“I think 10 years from now you’ll see hundreds of brands selling smartwatches, and most will source the technology from others,” said Bill Geiser, who developed Fossil’s tech watch business before cofounding Meta Watch. The Dallas-based smartwatch brand’s Meta M1 model, which was designed by the mobile phone expert Frank Nuovo, is available online, and will hit shelves this fall.

Even Jean-Claude Biver, head of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s watch division, said he would promote a luxury Swiss smartwatch for his group’s TAG Heuer brand — under one condition: “They must be different and unique; if they cannot claim that, they should leave the job to Samsung or Apple.”

Most of Mr. Biver’s colleagues in Switzerland are opting out of the smartwatch conversation or insisting that any focus on wristwatches will eventually be good for the mechanical watch business.

But the overriding conviction appears to be that luxury watches still satisfy a radically different need from their smart cousins: the desire to stand out. “If five million people have an Apple Watch, it doesn’t say anything about you,” said Daryn Schnipper, head of Sotheby’s International Watch Division. “It’s not even the same topic, really.”

Defenders of traditional Swiss watchmaking point out that while analog technology may be centuries old, its enduring functionality is precisely why mechanical watches will prevail over gadgets prone to obsolescence, like the Apple Watch.

“Technology has all the wonder, the most extraordinary features,” Mr. Biver said. “But it has no eternity.”